Hadrian’s Wall Originally Wooden, Speculates Expert Ahead of Major Congress on Roman Frontiers

The public are being invited to have their voices heard at an open session in Newcastle, England of a major congress of experts in the field of Roman history and archaeology, on the subject of the frontiers of the Roman Empire. Titled ‘Presenting the Roman Frontiers Communicating the Evidence’, it’ll take place at Newcastle University on August 21. Newcastle lies just south of the line of Hadrians Wall, the huge fortification built across northern England and southern Scotland by the Romans in the 2nd century AD at the northernmost extreme of their empire, to keep out marauding Picts.

International specialists gather every three years to discuss Rome’s frontiers, which once stretched from Hadrians Wall and the Antonine Wall in the north, along the banks of the Rhine and the Danube in the east, to the deserts of North Africa in the south. Their aim is to establish new and different means by which to best transmit the story of the frontiers of Rome to visitors, in a way that balances their protection and preservation for future generations with adequate public access and interaction. As well as the opinion of academics and museum curators, the congress want to canvass the views of the public too.

The congress is hosted by Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums, and will see the army of experts head to various Roman sites in the north of England, which as well as Hadrians Wall, include the likes of Ravenglass and Hardknott Roman Forts in Cumbria, Binchester Roman Fort in County Durham and Segedunum Roman Fort in Wallsend.

The congress comes after Geoff Carter a local archaeologist from Hexham, Northumberland has produced the findings of a study, 20 years in the making, on what he believes to have been the original composition of Hadrians Wall. Its based on his theory as to the purpose of the three lines of mysterious double postholes that run parallel to the stone rampart’s remains. Similarly to the Aubrey Holes at Stonehenge, theyve baffled experts for years. The large ditch that also runs parallel to the wall is confusingly too far away to have been much use when it came to repelling invaders. Carter thinks he finally has the answer: the ditch was dug at the foot of a wooden wall, which was erected swiftly by the Romans as a transitory expedient, to give the builders of the real defensive line ample cover while they carried out their work.

“The Roman army was good at this sort of thing. Its what they did for a living. And to some extent their lives depended on it.” — Geoff Carter

The most popular theory about the postholes is that they simply held pointed wooden sticks. But in his 65,000-word thesis, the outlines of which are sketched in his Theoretical Structural Archaeology blog, Carter argues that the postholes actually represent the foundation of a hardier fortification. I demonstrate, he told the Hexham Courant, that these thousands of postholes, six posts every 4ft, are the foundation of massive timber ramparts 10ft wide, about 20ft tall, and quite probably stretching all 117kms from coast to coast. The temporary timber wall joined the turrets together during the six years it took to build the stone wall behind it.

By his reckoning, the wall would have required around 2.5 million trees to build. That would make it one of the largest wooden structures ever erected in history. But Carter doesnt think it was beyond the Romans in the 2nd century AD to construct such a massive temporary wall, and quickly too. He points to an example in Julius Caesars Account of the Gallic War, where the great Roman Emperor describes how during the siege of Alesia in France, 58-51 BC, the Roman army threw up 18kms of siege works, protected by a second wooden defensive line, in as little as three weeks. On that basis, he speculates that the large Roman legion in northern England could have constructed Hadrians Wall Mk1 in as little as 20 weeks.

Of course it wasnt that simple, he adds, but the Roman army was good at this sort of thing. Its what they did for a living. And to some extent their lives depended on it. Creating the 117kms corridor was probably achievable within a year.

Picture by Leon Reed. All rights reserved.